Arts movie review

‘Doctor Sleep’ might just put you to bed

The much-anticipated sequel to ‘The Shining’ is not so much terrifying as it is boring

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Ewan McGregor stars as Danny Torrance in Stephen King's 'Doctor Sleep.'
Jessica Miglio

Doctor Sleep
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Screenplay by Mike Flanagan
Starring Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Cliff Curtis
Rated R, Now Playing

It’s an old tale that Stephen King had no special love for The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s much-acclaimed 1980 film adaptation of King’s own bestselling horror novel. Infinitely more interested in probing the darkness within the human mind than the more fantastical horrors of the supernatural, The Shining simply took one too many creative liberties for King’s personal liking. Fortunately, it appears that the question of whether Kubrick erred in wandering from his source material has finally been settled once and for all. If the box office numbers for Mike Flanagan’s recently released sequel, Doctor Sleep, are any indication, Kubrick got it right all along. 

Doctor Sleep begins by taking us backwards in time to pick up where The Shining left off. Now safely back at home with his mother, young Danny (Roger Dale Floyd) remains traumatized by his memories of the insidious Overlook Hotel, whose demons still haunt his waking and sleeping hours. But when Danny (Ewan McGregor) “shines” and reconnects with Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) — or more accurately, his ghost — he learns how to use the same psychic power that attracts these ghastly apparitions to protect himself from their predatory presence. The demons go away, but the nightmares don’t stop, and as Danny grows older he learns to take a page out of his father’s book, finding his daily refuge by literally drinking his sorrows away. Meanwhile, we’re also introduced to the mysterious and seductive Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the ringleader of a cult that use their shining abilities to sniff out and prey on similarly gifted children, whose essence (or “steam”) sustains their state of near-immortality. During a frenzied (and graphically over-indulgent) feeding session, Rose senses the presence of a child named Abra (Kyliegh Curran), a veritable white whale of psychic energy that her followers could live off for centuries. From this point, the film proceeds in predictable fashion towards a conclusion that King has surely dreamed of for decades. 

Torn between literary integrity and gratuitous homage, Doctor Sleep unfortunately never quite finds its own footing. By deciding to split the difference between Kubrick and King, Flanagan ends up with a final version that’s neither a successful standalone piece nor an authentic continuation of the story in the spirit of The Shining. Take the film’s opening scene, for instance, which just like its predecessor presents us with a sweeping overhead shot of an expanse of greenery, evoking the iconic scenic drive through the Colorado wilderness that frames Jack’s trip to the Overlook. We expect a similar effect here, but instead the camera zooms in to reveal a strange, hitherto unseen campsite where a young child unknowingly wanders into a trap set by Rose. Ultimately, the birds-eye shot is nothing more than an unintended and empty MacGuffin, an aesthetic similarity without any narrative or thematic basis.

If Flanagan were less preoccupied with impersonating Kubrick — a daunting task for even the most accomplished filmmaker — his curiosity about the supernatural forces at the heart of King’s novel could have made for an intriguing narrative. Despite the title, Danny’s shining ability was simply a supporting element in The Shining, an additional layer of mystery that both foreshadowed the film’s sinister turns and added to the uncertainty of the ending. In Doctor Sleep, King’s mythology takes center stage, as we witness the fullest extents of Rose’s, Abra’s, and ultimately Danny’s own psychic powers. Although the film’s desire to provide explication on its predecessor’s supernatural elements is respectable, Flanagan’s decision to force-feed us visual references and allusions to The Shining detracts from the experience. What made Kubrick’s film so terrifying and unsettling was not the fantasy elements themselves but rather how much was left unsaid about them, the inherent ambiguity that forced us to question how much of what we saw was actually real. By constantly revisiting and rereading elements such as the Overlook Hotel, Flanagan tries too hard to fill in the essential narrative gaps within The Shining rather than create his own distinct story, resulting in a jumbled mess of a film that feels thematically and narratively incoherent. 

Even for those who are unfamiliar with The Shining and won’t try to measure up Doctor Sleep against it, the film suffers from several issues that undermine the overall viewing experience, not the least of which is its highly questionable pacing. The first hour of the film consists of a series of flash forwards as we watch Danny transform from terrified child into amoral alcoholic drifter into the titular hospice caretaker over the span of four decades. Unfortunately, all of this character development takes place off screen, keeping Danny’s character completely at bay and preventing us from feeling any genuine empathy or identification with him. Once Danny decides to go to his first AA meeting, for example, the film immediately jumps forward eight years, as if his slow upward climb back to sobriety was as effortless and instant as his stumbling descent into substance abuse.

Even when the film gives itself time to linger over important moments of character development, the scenes ultimately ring hollow. The child Danny may be haunted by his time at the Overlook, but Sheila — whose experience was nothing short of horrifyingly traumatic — displays no signs of PTSD. When Abra realizes her father has been slain by Rose’s followers, she reacts with something between quiet acceptance and indifference. Whether due to a failure in acting or in writing, the characters are stripped of basic emotions, finding themselves remarkably placid and straight-faced in the face of tragedy. The exception is the scene in which Danny finally confronts the spirit whose presence (or, more accurately, absence) looms over almost the entire film: his father, Jack Torrance. In that moment, Flanagan finally finds his groove and gives us a powerful and nuanced treatment of alcoholism and the disintegration of family, the thematic undercurrent of both of King’s novels. Unfortunately, the moment comes too late to redeem the rest of the film.

Ultimately, the biggest disappointment of Doctor Sleep is its failure as a horror film. Flanagan unabashedly lifts the most terrifying images from The Shining and throws them at his audience time and time again until they’ve completely lost any shock value. Around the third time we see the same naked old lady emerge from behind an ominous bathtub curtain, the visual feels more comically absurd than scary. So, of course, Flanagan decides to revisit the image two more times before the end. The most terrifying thing about the film is just how much it detracts from the terrors of The Shining, which won’t feel anything like the timeless horror masterpiece it was once you’ve watched Doctor Sleep, a sequel in name but nothing else. Flanagan might have succeeded in making a film that Stephen King can finally appreciate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ghost of Kubrick comes back to haunt him for it.